In the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the UK has formally triggered its departure from the European Union. These two events, so distant in time, are inherently connected in a specific way that we all need to recognise.
In a recent judgment the UK Supreme Court upheld a law requiring that a UK citizen earn a minimum level of income in order to bring their non-UK/EU partner to live with them in the UK. The court accepted that this led to “significant hardship” which impinged upon their human right to family life. However, this was held to be justifiable on the grounds of the state’s “interest in ensuring that the couple do not have recourse to welfare benefits and have sufficient resources to be able to play a full part in British life."
There is something particularly troubling about the destitution faced by asylum seekers, and that is that it is deliberate. Unlike so many areas of public policy that cause pain and vulnerability, the years of destitution faced by asylum seekers is not an accident or an unintended consequence of an inequitable economic system. It isn’t a by-product of austerity measures or an administrative cock-up. What marks out this state of destitution is that the cruelty is meted out consciously; destitution is a targeted policy tool, used with intent by government to seek to effect change.
Holes in our benefits safety net are leaving hundreds of thousands of people at risk of hunger and destitution.
It used to be said that one of the main reasons for the absence of ‘absolute’ poverty in the UK was our welfare safety net – one of the crown jewels of the 1945 Welfare State (alongside the NHS and universal free education – both now arguably also under serious threat).
Normalising what should be considered shameful in a ‘civilised’ and rich society such as ours is dangerous as it desensitises us, it stops us getting outraged and therefore wanting to do something about it. I was recently told that I shouldn’t take action on something that I felt was flagrantly unjust just because I felt outraged, meaning that I needed to know my facts and have a thought through strategy in place to achieve my objective.
One of the things I have learned about working in homeless centres is that they are not short of donations of food and clothing. I spent the first week of my most recent placement in Manchester knee deep in harvest donations, which came in bagfuls faster than we could sort and store them.
In 1864, Father Nugent of Liverpool set up a night shelter for homeless boys, one of many projects he established for destitute children and young people in the city. A few years later, he described its work; the boys ‘were provided with a wash, a basin of coffee and half a pound of bread with a dash of treacle.
That working-class world, with its solidarities and its exclusions, its sources of pride and power and its cruelties, was of course demolished during the 1980s. Economic and social liberalism swept away the old order. If you were gay, female or black, that was in many respects a cause for celebration. But the 2010 encounter between Gillian Duffy and Gordon Brown showed how spectacularly the Left failed to attend to the fall-out in its own heartlands.
Three reflections emerge; the crudity of polarising referendum as a means of tackling complex issues; the nature and depth of the divisions and thirdly the shifting, the unresolved relationship between direct and representative democracy. These reflections could be closely interlinked.
Free movement should be about the interchange of people and culture. 0.5% of the UK population (about 300,000) emigrates each year. If these are simply replaced by people moving to the UK, there is no net migration, no increase in population. The problem in the UK has been rapid population growth, not migration in itself. Only with a balanced economy across Europe can free movement become the positive force that it should be, once again.